LEADWOOD, Mo. — The father kept the photos of his son tucked in a drawer, fading reminders of the smiling baby he last held in his arms nearly 60 years ago.
Bill Iahn had few memories of his only child besides the pictures: one showed him as a young soldier with a dimple-chinned baby in a high chair, another was a portrait of his son on a rocking horse with the inscription, "To My Daddy, Dec. 25, 1945."
The little boy had been spirited away by his mother after the couple divorced, soon after that, and she had pledged he'd never see his son again.
Iahn tried to prove her wrong. Many times.
Over the decades, his family made calls, pored over phone books and scoured the Internet for clues that would lead him to his son. Nothing panned out.
At age 87, Iahn had given up on seeing his son's face again.
Then one day this fall, Iahn's great-nephew, Denny Huff, was chatting with a friend in this tiny town where secrets are as rare as strangers. He mentioned his Uncle Bill's long-lost son.
The friend happened to be a genealogy buff, and with some surprisingly quick research on the Internet, she produced a name and phone number in Arizona, where Iahn's son had been born.
Huff looked at the name. It wasn't familiar, but all the details seemed to fit. Amazed and excited, he rushed over to Iahn's house.
"Uncle Bill, guess what?" he said, clutching the papers.
"I think we found Billy."
More from TODAY.com
President Obama lights National Christmas Tree
Despite dreary weather, President Barack Obama and his family got into the Christmas spirit Friday at the annual National ...
- TODAY’s Takeaway: Remembering Mandela, Twitter’s future
- Duchess Kate recycles gown - with $36 costume jewelry
- TODAY producer: Mandela is why I'm a journalist
- Is Sriracha overrated? Andrew Zimmern, others talk hot sauce alternatives
- President Obama lights National Christmas Tree
The long search
The father couldn't believe it.
"When you wait that long — 58 years — you just don't think it's going to happen," Iahn says, his raspy voice still filled with wonder.
A lifetime had passed since he was the young soldier in the Army's horse cavalry when he met his first wife, Thelma, in Phoenix, Ariz. Iahn was dispatched to Europe during World War II and ended up fighting in the Battle of the Bulge.
He and his wife divorced around war's end. Iahn says he doesn't remember precisely what stirred her angry, unforgettable pronouncement:
"Take a good look," he remembers her saying about their son. "It'll be the last time you ever see him."
Iahn remarried and worked construction in the St. Louis area most of his life. After he retired, he and his second wife, Dot, moved 60 miles south to Leadwood, an old mining town (population 1,160) where he had grown up.
He never forgot his son and wistfully mentioned him to relatives.
"He'd have this sad look on his face," says Betty Iahn, his niece. "He'd say, 'I wish I knew where Billy was.' He wanted to see his Billy ... before he died."
Betty Iahn tried to help, checking out phone books and trolling the Internet for anyone named Bloom — Thelma's surname from a first marriage.
"I hunted. I called. I e-mailed people," she says. "I didn't get anywhere."
Other relatives pitched in as well as an Arizona state trooper who was Iahn's friend long ago. But the search went nowhere until the day Huff was chatting with Sharon Hackworth, Leadwood's water clerk, about Dot Iahn, who was hospitalized at the time with heart problems.
"It's a shame they never had kids. They're so good with him," Hackworth said.
"He had a son," Huff said, and told her about the family's futile efforts to find him — including searching the Internet as late as 1999.
Hackworth had traced her husband's descendants to the 1700s, but she knew family trees could be tricky. She had relatives she had never been able to find.
She typed the name William Iahn in Ancestry.com. Under Iahn's file was his marriage to Thelma Theodosia Harold and her death in 1984. Beneath it was an intriguing line:
Child of William IAHN and Thelma Theodosia HAROLD is ... Living TREACY.
Hackworth looked up Thelma's name. Sure enough, it listed her marriage to a man named Bloom. And again, Iahn and their child, with a Treacy surname.
It just had to be his Billy.
Hackworth noticed the Web site had been updated in 2001 — two years after the Iahn family's last Internet search. And she provided one more clue. Knowing Iahn's ex-wife had lived in Phoenix, she found a phone list of 10 Treacys in Arizona.
The last one: William Treacy of Phoenix.
A giant step
The Iahns now had a name and number, but the next step was a giant one.
Iahn is in poor health and depends on oxygen — he also uses a walking cane — and his family didn't want him to call himself. They feared he'd be rebuffed.
"He might not want to talk to you. He might say, 'You're a stranger. I don't know you,' " Huff gently warned his uncle.
Iahn's reply: "I'll accept that if that's what happens."
Another nephew, Jimmy, also worried that Iahn's son might have been told his father was dead and wouldn't believe an out-of-the-blue call.
"I was skeptical," he says. "It was 58 years. I didn't want to ruin his life."
Eventually, another relative in Colorado reached out first, dialing the William Treacy in the phone directory.
The man on the other end wasn't Iahn's son but his grandson. At first, he thought the call was a prank, then became convinced it was real. He provided his father's unlisted number and called him with the thrilling news.
"Dad," he said, "I've got a grandpa!"
His father was puzzled.
"Your dad's alive," the 30-year-old son declared.
William Treacy, the long-lost son, stared at his wife, Lydia, in disbelief.
Not long before, they'd been thumbing through a three-inch thick photo album including his baby pictures. (He'd also kept a baby book listing presents he had been given, including two from his father: $4.50 in pennies and two $2 bills.)
"Wouldn't it be nice," Lydia had said, "to know what happened to your dad?"
"Then, two weeks later, boom! God gave us an answer," she says now.
When Iahn's nephew, Jack, placed the momentous call to Arizona soon afterward, the first words were as simple as they come:
So much to say
There was no way to make up for lost time. But there was much to say.
William Treacy revealed he's the father of four and grandfather of seven.
Iahn told him about family he never knew he had.
Treacy, a machinist who had taken the surname of a stepfather, had presumed his biological father was dead: He had once heard Iahn had been killed in a car accident (he was seriously injured in one).
Treacy had been raised by his grandmother and mother — who split from her husband — and even now, he remembers moments as a boy when he longed for his father.
"Growing up ... not knowing that he was on this earth, and not having him around when I used to play ball...," he says, groping for the right words. "It's sad to me."
When he questioned his mother about his father, "she would say, 'Don't ask me,'" he said.
So he stopped asking.
The father-son call led to an invitation to Leadwood, but Treacy worried his newly discovered family might wonder why he hadn't done more to find Iahn.
"I don't know how you all will feel," he confided to his cousin, Betty.
"We all love Bill and we'll love you, too," she reassured him.
Treacy had already won over Dot Iahn, a spry woman who loves animals (her menagerie includes a dog, turkey and miniature 26-inch-high horse) and dolls (she has 780 lining almost every room of her house.)
"He said, 'Do you mind if I call you Mom?' " she recalls.
"Eighty-one years old and to be called Mom for the first time in your life?" she says, her face beaming. "Gosh."
This fall, when Treacy and his wife, Lydia, arrived at the airport in St. Louis, he held a paper sign with "Treacy" and "Iahn" written on it.
He needn't have bothered. Family members recognized him immediately. There were hugs and kisses all around.
"Uncle Bill doesn't show a lot of emotion, but he was smiling," says his nephew, Jimmy Iahn, who drove them to the airport.
No one saw Iahn shed a tear, and yet he confesses: "I might have when nobody could see me."
Iahn has never been one to talk much, but friends say he's clearly a changed man.
"He's just got a twinkle in his eye he didn't have before," says Hackworth, whose research reunited father and son.
In their time together, the two men watched westerns, toured the St. Louis arch, visited Iahn's sister in a nursing home, looked at old photos and joined nearly 70 other family members for a reunion at a nearby VFW Hall.
"His family grew by tenfold," Jimmy Iahn says. "It's pretty wild."
And father and son got along famously. "It was like we had known each other a long time," Treacy says.
Family members noticed similarities between father and son: Both are Army veterans, wear their watches on their left hand over their shirts and walk the same way.
Two of Treacy's grandchildren are redheads — just as Iahn was when he was young.
Iahn teases his son, calling him old man. Treacy sticks with "Dad" for his father.
Though Treacy — who turned 60 on Dec. 16 — says he still feels "a gap of not having him around all these years," he doesn't dwell on that.
"It's like being in a dim room ... and now everything's bright," he says. "There's a big ol' light in my life."
'Our first Christmas'
The baby pictures tucked away all these years now sit on a living room shelf, along with a new photo — son and father, their arms draped around one another, with their wives.
Treacy is spending Christmas in Missouri with his father.
A few years ago, Dot Iahn had lost interest in holiday celebrations, so she gave away her lights and decorations. But with her new son, she's enthused again and started planning Christmas dinner — turkey, roast beef, mashed potatoes — in early November.
She has a Christmas stocking for Treacy and among his gifts: a pillow embroidered with the word "son."
In a way, Treacy's life has started over.
"My mom says this is our first Christmas," he says. "I guess I'll be a 60-year-old kid."
And a content one, at that.
"I've got him and he's got me," he says, "and that's all there is."
Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.